A small blonde girl wearing worn dirty sneakers squats against a service door in the rain and pees on crumpled papers, wrappers, a notice announcing ‘thirty percent off all dresses today’.
She has a dress. It’s her favorite color, purple, and has red flowers that look like they were drawn with crayons. If today was a warm day she would have worn that instead of these scratchy stiff jeans that are too big anyway.
The smell of food from a nearby café hurts her stomach. She wants to go inside but has to wait for her mother who sits on a sheet of plastic on the cold ground, trying to sell the poems she writes. The woman holds up a small book. The pages bound by hand are damp; the ink runs.
People hurry by. Some slow down and throw disgusted looks at the girl. She bites her lower lip and bows her head, trying to become invisible like the ghost in a story she once read, in a bedroom with pretty yellow paper on the walls and a big window. An oak tree and rope swing swaying in the breeze.
She pulls up her jeans and wipes her nose on the sleeve of her jacket. She watches her mother brush wet hair from her eyes. Pull the hood of her orange sweatshirt up to cover her head. Sit back against the wall, face lifted towards the passing people.
The girl believes she is trying to look proud; like this is normal.
She stands in one place, too cold to move. She tries to count days backwards to her last birthday but gives up and tries to remember what she had to eat yesterday instead. A piece of thrown away pizza, that was it. It was still wrapped in its greasy white paper, only one bite gone and the corn and mushrooms were still on top. It tasted good. Salty and soft.
A small spotted dog tries to get into the butcher shop near the café but a big man in a bloody apron chases the dog away. The man reminds her of a cartoon character with a head too small for his body. His face is red and he stares at the girl like he is about to chase her away too. Her back straightens. But all he does is look up and down the street then turns and goes back into the shop.
She yawns and remembers that last night she and her mother slept in the shelter. They were lucky to get a bed. There was a long line and some of the other people looked sick. At nine p.m. they were finally let in and she put her head down and grabbed the end of her mother’s thick skirt, twisting it until they had passed everyone.
Inside was warm. Her blanket was soft. But all through the night people coughed and talked. She hardly slept. This morning someone gave her hot tea, a boiled egg, and toast.
Now someone passes and throws money, coins that chink together and land in the basket by her mother’s side. The person doesn’t take a book and her mother watches as they walk on without saying a word. Lately, the girl thinks, her mother’s face looks wrong. Like it’s sliding to one side and her mouth is always tight. Maybe it happened when she was sick. After that, they couldn’t go back home.
She is about to ask if she can please go and get some water when a man stops in front of her. His eyes are light and filmy, a pale blue that makes her think of the sea. He looks at her hard. She can almost feel his eyes push into her. She thinks she should do something disgusting to make him stop looking. But all she can do is stay still and breathe the smallest bit of air into her body.
He doesn’t move. He is blocking her view of her mother. His dark shirt is tucked neatly into his pants. He smells like powder.
Finally, he moves but instead of going away like she wants him to, he goes over to her mother. He stoops and says something. She shakes her head and says something back. The man keeps talking; the girl can hear his voice but not what he says.
Her mother’s face looks tighter and she raises her voice but he doesn’t move, doesn’t raise his voice. She thrusts her book of poems up to him. He reaches into his pocket. The girl can see green paper and she watches as he presses it into her mother’s hand. He does not take her soggy book of poems.
‘Selling Poetry’ (c)2022 Deborah McMenamy
All Rights Reserved